A highly significant meeting at Lambeth Palace took place on 3 July. The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, called together a large number bishops and Diocesan Directors of Education to talk about the Church of England’s schools and other aspects of education policy. One of the speakers was Michael Gove. In answer to a question from the Bishop of Oxford, he said, about RE, “I don’t think I’ve done enough.” Mr Gove also said. “I thought its [RE’s] special status was protection enough.” He committed his department to “revitalising the conversations on RE”.
This is one of the few occasions Mr Gove has actually mentioned RE, and it would seem, on the face of it to be some kind of breakthrough. He appears to have got the message that we at the REC, along with many of our member organisations, have been giving for eighteen months now.
Many questions remain, however. What is he going to do to make up for his lack? With whom are the conversations to be held, and when? In the other remarks Mr Gove made, he defended the EBacc as currently constituted (ie it excludes RE as a humanities choice) but, to be fair, he also emphasised that with the new Performance 8 measure, RE can count, along with other subjects.
IF this is a turning point in the relationship of RE with this government/Mr Gove (as I sincerely hope it is) then it is potentially one of the most significant developments we can hope for within the whole RE community. This means that we have to be capable of a considered, clear and above all united response to whatever kind of (or offer of) conversations that might now emerge. The churches, the range of faith communities, the RE professional and academic associations and other groups are all members of the REC, who through the APPG and its member bodies have been raising our concerns on RE for nearly two years now.
We must stay together at this crucial moment. We must avoid hasty reactions, point scoring etc and develop a unified and constructive way forward. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and we are not yet even invited to the table. So, two point nine cheers for Mr Gove, and congratulations to the Bishops for getting this admission from him.
There is still no definitive response on the removal of bursaries for RE PGCE students. My view at the moment is that they will not be restored, for both economic and ideological reasons, and that bursaries for other subjects are likely to be removed. At least this resolves the question of the inequality of the position in RE! But the position over RE teacher training is still very serious. David Laws admits that PGCE recruitment is “not healthy”, but fails to acknowledge the vast majority of School Direct places for RE have also not been taken up. We continue our dialogue.
I am pursuing two other areas of dialogue with ministers and officials at the DfE (all change again regarding the latter for RE) – GCSE reform. It seems as if there will be a reformed GCSE Religious Studies, probably for use from 2016, but the nature of it and the process of reform are still very unclear. The REC will need to be prepared to work with some of its member bodies to try to ensure that the process and outcome are the right ones. In the meantime, we will have the GCSE RS results for 2013 next month. They should indicate whether and to what extent RE has been impacted by the introduction of the EBacc. We are also expecting an Ofqual research report on GCSE RS in the next month or so. Both these will be significant in determining REC approaches to GCSE reform.
The role that RE plays, and can more effectively play, in helping to prevent religious extremism is the second area. There are new moves from both the EU and the Council of Europe in encouraging European countries to ensure that their education systems promote religious literacy (my words) and remove religious ignorance. The Prime Minister’s call for schools and education in this country to do more to combat extremism, should mean that these calls have a ready hearing, and result in positive government support for RE.
So, Mr Gove, you have admitted the error of your ways. Will you now take advantage of the opportunity Europe, the PM and the RE community are giving you to have some conversation with the RE Council about strengthening RE before it is too late?